Developed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES) 18 months ago, “Men of Change” highlights 27 African American men who have revolutionized American society. The men represent a broad spectrum of disciplines from visual art and music to sports and journalism. The exhibition includes well-known celebrities like Muhammad Ali but also features ascending public figures such as Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted President Obama’s portrait.
Created in response to the surge of police shootings of Black men in recent years, a diverse group of artists, advisors, academics, curators and museum professionals selected men from the 20th and 21st centuries to provide contemporary narratives of excellence to counter negative stereotypes of Black men.
Since August 2019, the exhibition has been shown at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio and Washington State History Museum, Tacoma, Washington. As museums reopened with limited capacity over the summer of 2020, Anacostia Community Museum had hoped to show “Men of Change” in its main gallery here in Washington, DC. But, as the fall approached and COVID-19 cases rose, closures were imminent leaving the exhibition’s timely content, and its potential to reach audiences, hanging in the balance.
Rethinking Visitor Engagement
Andrea Jones, Associate Director of Education, began her first day at ACM last fall surrounded crates filled with content for the “Men of Change” exhibition just as she was receiving email notices stating that the Museum would have to close due to spiking cases of COVID-19 in the DC region.
So she thought about placing the exhibition outside so that the public can engage with its content in a safe, socially-distanced environment. In many ways, what Jones and her colleagues ended up producing may inadvertently have been more impactful in reaching audiences than if the exhibition proceeded as planned.
When considering where to place the exhibition, the ACM team selected Deanwood for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited African American communities in the US and in DC. The neighborhood has a long history of community activism and engagement or, as Jones remarked, “a long history of defying societal expectations,” much like the 27 men featured in the exhibition.
Deanwood is also home to Ron Brown High School, an institution dedicated to educating young black men or as Jones calls it, “an incubator for men of change.” Lastly, adjacent to Brown High School’s campus is the Deanwood Community Center and the Deanwood DC Public Library, two community resources that draw residents regularly.
The Impetus for Men of Change
Melanie Adams, Director of ACM, selected much of the content for the outdoor exhibition. “The Anacostia Community Museum is proud to be hosting ‘Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets’ during this unprecedented health crisis and pivotal time in America’s continued struggle for racial equality,” she said. “With African American stories largely absent from the historical narrative, this reimagined exhibition, allows us to make accessible, the contributions of African American men to our country and culture.”
Marquette Foley, Curator, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions (SITES) explains that “The exhibition is meant to stream African American culture, what it takes to achieve our better selves and what it means to embrace community.” The exhibition is also about “myth-breaking” and not letting stereotypes define you or as Foley deftly states, “Who tells the story, owns the story.”
In reaction to the wave of shootings that have led to the death of so many Black men at the hands of police who are almost always acquitted, the exhibition seeks to humanize Black men whom American society too often demonizes. Foley hopes that the exhibition will “open the landscape of our American greatness and provide examples of excellence for kids and adults.” She adds that the people represented in the exhibition are human examples of greatness who just happen to be Black men.
Creating an outdoor exhibition in fewer than ten weeks presented a number of challenges. To accomplish their goal, ACM worked with Brooklyn-based architect Jonathan Jackson to design the display. ACM also worked closely with Lloyd Smith, a third-generation Ward 7-based community organizer, other members of the Deanwood community and Ron Brown High School.
The exhibition has given ACM the opportunity for deeper engagement with Ron Brown HS and the community through a series of public programs including student art exhibitions and a walking tour narrated by Brown HS alum Christian Johnson who currently attends Howard University. The tour is downloadable as a podcast and available free of charge (see link below). The community has even worked on compiling a list of extraordinary local men for a “Deanwood Men of Change” display which Jones says will be erected sometime in March.
When thinking about the impact the exhibition has had on local students, Foley notes that she was “impressed and touched by the profundity of the children who are looking for a way forward.”
Men of Change
The 27 “Men of Change” include: Dick Gregory, W.E.B Du Bois, John H. Johnson, Alvin Ailey, Carter G. Woodson, August Wilson, LeBron James, Dr. Rob Gore, Charles Hamilton Houston, Ryan Coogler, Kendrick Lamar, Shaka Senghor, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Charles Bolden, Kehinde Wiley, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Romare Bearden, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Robert F. Smith, Andrew Young, Muhammad Ali, Cleveland Summit, Michael Seibel and Bob Moses.
“Men of Change” is on view, 24 hours a day from February 1 to May 31, 2020. The exhibition is located in the middle path at the intersection of 48th and Nash Streets NE on the campus of Ron Brown High School (4800 Meade St) and the Deanwood Community Center. (see link for pdf map below)
Exhibition Map: https://www.si.edu/sites/default/files/acm-moc-map.png
“Men of Change: Walk with Us” Tour available as a podcast: https://pod.link/1553104659
“Men of Change” Exhibition Homepage: https://menofchange.si.edu/
Follow hashtag #menofchange on social media for up-to-the-minute information
Phil Hutinet is the publisher of East City Art, DC’s alternative art source. For more information visit www.eastcityart.com.